Why Low-Income Students Need Tutoring

By | May 27, 2010

Edtior’s note: This is a two part series examining tutoring for low-income students. In the first part, Nicholas looks at why there is a need for tutoring; in the second part, he will explore the most effective options for addressing this need.

Picture the following California public middle school. The students are nearly all either Latino or African-American and receive free or reduced lunch because of their families’ poverty status. The Latino students are non-native English speakers, so they have to take English Language Development (ELD) instead of an elective.

Not that the elective choices are all that great: there’s a poorly funded band program, yearbook, media arts, and writing. There isn’t an art program. In addition to ELD, the students have to take physical education, language arts, and math out of six possible periods in the day.

You’d think that would leave room for mandatory science and history classes, but there’s a catch: if the student didn’t test at grade level on their high stakes test in math, English, or both the previous year, they have to take an additional “support” period for the subject.

At a strong school, this should only be a small percentage of the student population, but at this poorly funded, struggling school well over half of the students don’t test at grade level. A typical schedule looks like this: Math, Math Support, Language Arts, Language Arts Support, lunch, English Language Development, Physical Education. That’s right, no science, no history, no electives, and no fun.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Even when student are lucky enough to get science, history, and an elective, they are still faced with plenty of challenges.

The classrooms are overcrowded – approaching 40 students. Materials are worn or nonexistent. Teachers are inexperienced and turnover is constant. Some positions are even vacant all year because there aren’t enough people who want to teach at a struggling school; that means students get one substitute after another.

Even the brightest, most dedicated students have an uphill battle. Less than a quarter of students in the school I’m describing are testing at grade level. And this is just a middle school. I wish I could say it was an extreme case, but sadly in California, it’s not. I taught at the school I’m describing, and since then I’ve seen many that are worse.

For a while, these schools were “out of sight, out of mind,” but for better or worse No Child Left Behind (NCLB) changed that. This flawed legislation has been justly lambasted for some of its shortcomings, but at the very least NCLB’s emphasis on data and accountability has made it harder for education officials to turn a blind eye to failing schools.

The problem with NCLB is that while it has shown us that minority and low-income populations are not being served, it has not done much to change this trend. The proverbial “achievement gap” is actually widening as successful schools in predominantly white and affluent suburbs do well on high-stakes tests, which through NCLB are tied to the funding they receive.

Making school performance tied to funding was designed to create incentives for poorer schools, but not suprisingly poor schools predictability don’t do as well on the tests and are left to suffer through the endless stages of bureaucratic punishment that are a part of No Child Left Behind. These punishments are supposed to be part of the new model of accountability; unfortunately, because they rely on measures like firing administration and teachers, they only perpetuate the cycle of turnover and inconsistency at underperforming schools.


Tutoring, which is designed to be supplemental, is all but essential to low-income students if they want to succeed.

Poor students need tutoring more than any other population, and will benefit from tutoring more than any other population. With tutoring, they have the opportunity to make enormous strides while compensating for the shortcomings of their schools. Even the worst behaved students in a classroom tend to function well one-on-one or in small groups, since acting out is often a defense designed to hide academic weakness.

Additionally, tutoring provides a consistent, nurturing environment with an educated adult role model. Students affected by poverty often lack stable homes. Tutoring provides a safe learning space.

More than any content though, tutoring provides students with the essential learning skills that their peers with more resources acquire at a young age. Succeeding in a difficult environment takes self-sufficiency and dedication, and without basic organizational, time management, note-taking, and research skills – just to name a few – low-income students face an uphill battle in their quest to obtain an education.

High quality tutoring needs to be available to low-income students. Without the support of a strong tutor, poor students face a struggle if they wish to graduate from high school prepared to attend college.

As I often used to say when teaching, it’s hard to follow the path if you can’t see the path. Impoverished communities tend to be cut off, with few if any educated role models for aspiring students. College isn’t talked about, and doesn’t feel accessible. A good tutor, by providing guidance and support, can make higher education an accessible reality for low-income students.

Photo credit: dklimke